By Charles Layton @Blogfinger
By the time the Township demolished it in 2009, The Sampler Inn had stood at 28 Main Avenue for approximately 90 years. It was one of Ocean Grove’s most beloved institutions. As you can see from the photo above, people used to flock to its cafeteria for a traditional fare that included whipped sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, lamb chops, ham with raisin sauce, a rich array of desserts and, at breakfast, among other things, a generous selection of hot cereals.
But the years took their toll. When The Sampler’s absentee owners filed for bankruptcy in 2006, the place had become a first-class public nuisance — boarded up, empty and gutted on the inside, unmaintained, with a caving-in roof and other structural atrocities. Teenagers broke into the place in summer to prowl and explore. Vagrants camped there in winter, sometimes drinking, sometimes warming themselves before sterno stoves.
Jeff Dean, who lived on Heck Avenue just behind The Sampler, said if the place had ever caught fire “the whole neighborhood would have been gone.” Another neighbor, Danny Beaman, said, “I remember being in bed and hearing noises and getting out of bed and running to see if The Sampler was on fire.” Some of the people living closest to The Sampler were disabled or elderly; they’d have had a tough time escaping from a raging inferno. “The Sampler was two feet from my mother’s house,” said Lisa Noll. (Her mother was in her early 80s, and a man living in the same house was in his 90s.)
The neighbors, especially those on Heck in the second block from the beach, fought for years against the menace that The Sampler had become. It was a battle to defend their properties, their peace of mind and, as they saw it, their very lives. But it was also a battle for the common good of Ocean Grove, alerting people in this town, and some people in government, to take derelict buildings more seriously.
One recent evening some of those Heck Avenue neighbors got together over refreshments in Beaman’s living room and relived their experiences. Theirs is a story that needs to be recorded and remembered. Lessons can be learned about the power of aroused and well-organized citizens.
Some had fond memories. Although Sue Beneke, who lived right next door to The Sampler, endured years of anxiety and inconvenience, even she considered the place “a beautiful institution.” Her daughter, Kirsten, recalled how, as a child, she would go to the side door of the kitchen every morning and get a muffin for breakfast. Another Heck resident, Carmen Rivera, volunteered to teach English to a young girl from Poland who worked at The Sampler. Relations were usually neighborly, and when a problem arose people tended to seek constructive solutions. Beneke said some of the college kids who worked in the kitchen used to play a radio very loud at 5 o’clock in the morning. “So I bought them all radio head sets, and they actually used them,” she said.
Still, even before the place became a total wreck, there were problems, many associated with the kitchen, which faced Heck Avenue. One problem was rodents.
Beaman: “I used to watch from my front porch. There was a hole in the back wall where the cats would line up and wait for the mice to run out. It was amusing; they would wait in line patiently for the next mouse to come out, and then they would go chasing after it.”
Noise and truck pollution were less amusing. At a certain point, the neighbors said, large trucks started arriving at 5 a.m. to deliver goods to the kitchen. They would leave their engines running, filling the street with foul-smelling exhaust.
Then there was the leaking garbage — “dumpster juice” and “dumpster puddles” they called it. The odor drove people inside. “I just remember one summer day all of us had to go inside our houses because the garbage was leaking out of the dumpster,” Jay Shapiro said. “It was bad.”
Sue Beneke recalled “big canisters of fat” in back of the kitchen. “We tried to build a fence around the back of the kitchen, that would hide the fat vats and the dumpsters and everything,” Beneke said. “We drew the design. And then I went over there to the owners and said, ‘All the neighbors will even pay for it. We’ll pay for this beautiful Victorian fence for the kitchen, take the loading dock down.’ We were even going to make it like a French bistro. But they would not let us do it.”
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